Selling UKIP, selling euroscepticism

Away from the continuing convolutions of David Cameron over immigration policy, there is the more mundane world of day-to-day euroscepticism in the UK.Sign-post_&_Big_Ben

This often passes unremarked,for it is low-level stuff: a conversation here, an online comment there, an allusion somewhere else. Nothing much when taken as individual actions, but a substantial thing when pulled together.

This pervasiveness of eurosceptical discourse is one of the reasons why it is both so hard to have a meaningful discussion about the EU in the UK – “but we talk about it all the time!” – and why the UK’s reputation has taken a turn for the worse with other member states – “it’s everywhere, this attitude”.

Of course, this is not the same as saying it’s successful – witness the recent poll that showed support for EU membership at its highest in over 20 years, with an age gradient that suggests younger voters are more positive than older ones.

But sometimes, there is a more substantial push, an effort to frame debate and to advance it.

I’ve been looking at one of those pushes this week: “Why vote UKIP” by Suzanne Evans.

Evans is Deputy Chairman, with responsibility for policy presentation, building on her previous professional experience as a journalist. Since the ‘reshuffle‘ in the summer, she has been pushed as one of the alternative faces of the party, to temper an over-reliance on Nigel Farage.

The book – which came out in September – is an attempt to articulate a case for supporting UKIP, working through various areas. The title is one of a series produced by Biteback.

The aim here is not to produce a book review, but rather to consider the approach, for it mirrors much of the party’s line.

The most striking point is the amount of space devoted to parties other than UKIP in the book. A litany of failures, mistakes, cock-ups and the rest litter the text, to ensure that the ”LibLabCon” is tarred very heavily. Indeed, in many of the chapters the general thrust is one of “look at this lot, they’re all rubbish, but we’ve got some sensible ideas to tackle the problems”.

This is a completely legitimate method – indeed, it’s used by all parties to some extent – but here it reads as part of the turn towards engaging those people who have lost their allegiances to the old parties. Playing on that disaffection is a key part of building support, even before getting to how it can be resolved. If you like, this is classic populism, not least with its promises that we can sort it out, but we don’t need to worry about the detail just yet. At different points in the book, several groups are going to be ‘put first’, which I find semantically (and logistically) dubious.

Indeed, the detail is almost irrelevant here. What matters that here is a party that understands, that isn’t bound by the conventionalities that limit the rest, and that isn’t afraid to break some eggs in the making of the proud new British omelette (to overstretch a metaphor). Straight-talking, straight-acting, good old pulling up your socks and getting the job done – very Farage-ish, in fact. So it doesn’t really matter if you can’t remember your policies, because that’s not really what you’re selling. As Evans herself says: “I agree with most of the party’s core principles”, which raises a question of which ones she doesn’t, and why that isn’t a problem for either side.

This feeds into a second point, namely the viscerality of the message. Factual errors and misleading statements appear alongside an evidence base drawn very largely from eurosceptic think tanks or newspapers. I concede that I might have been away the week that illegally-imported bushmeat caused an Ebola outbreak here, but I’m thinking I’d have heard about it: hardly the stuff of balanced consideration. In Evan’s defence, she’s not writing a book called “the pros and cons of voting UKIP”, but still.

And this is maybe the crux of the matter. The kind of people who are likely to pony up the very reasonable sum of money to buy this book are not looking for balance, but for confirmation of their choices (excepting academics and journalists, who are trying to ‘get inside’ UKIP (sic)). It all comes back to the day-to-day aspect I kicked off with: there’s always another horror story to share with people, another factoid about waste, or fraud, or bureaucracy. Sometimes that the EU, sometimes it’s the UK, but the UK can recover and rebuild itself if it follows UKIP’s direction. Quite why the EU can’t do the same isn’t really discussed. But that’s not UKIP’s problem.

Ultimately this points to a model of euroscepticism as criticism, rather than critique. Indeed, it’s easily to build agreement about what one dislikes than it is to do for what one wants. The difficulty will come should one succeed in breaking what one dislikes. The EU is far from perfect, but it might be that it’s the least bad option out there.